Maria Salman and Uzair Zahid Siddiqui 2013

What is the most complex American problem in Middle East? The writing is on the wall,
IRAN. The country from being the police man of the Gulf for America drifted to opposite
end, naming America the biggest Satan.
Both countries have conflicting regional interests, and both are unwilling to meet at a middle
ground. They are pitched against each other in all arenas, be it international politics, Middle
Eastern peace process, international oil market or nuclear proliferation.
The relationship was not always this antognistic; Iran was considered an invaluable American
ally. In return Iran had American support, but the Shah benefitted more from this relation
then Iran. After 1979 revolution the relationship went downhill as a new anti–American
supreme leader made reform that opposed the modern, westrenised culture and were leaning
more towards Islamization. After the Iranian attack on U.S. embassy, America severed all
diplomatic ties with Iran. American who had a vested interest in the region felt the loss of
such a staunch political ally strongly.
Since then a lot of major conflicts have rose between the two, that haven’t been come to any
satisfactory conclusion. Mainly because U.S. now sees Iran as a security threat to itself and to
internation system, and tries to prevent any social and economical developments in Iran. Iran
on the other hand, strongly anti-American, is determined to establish itself as an independent
state, free of U.S. intervention. On and off half hearted negotiations have occoured in the last
3 decades, but have yielded no significant results yet.
The facts above seen in the light of realist frame work prove the realist claim that states are
essentially selfish actors, safe guarding their own interests. Both Iran and America have
vested interests in the region, but ―can a compromised be reaced?‖ and ―is peace a
possibility?‖ are the big questions under realist frame work.
The one step forward, two steps back relation
Iranian state sponsorship of international terrorism
Iran is a key player in the regional politics of Middle East. Allegedly, Iran has been involved
in various acts of terrorism, and has backed numerous terrorist groups and activities. Its
political influence and the U.S charge of Iranian affinity towards terrorism in the region are
of uttmost importance in contributing towards their strained relations.
Maria Salman and Uzair Zahid Siddiqui 2013

a) The political Islamization
What is political Islamization? In today world, a new concept of Islam is emerging, where
Islam is infiltrating the secular realm of politics. Scholars belive that ―Political Islamization”
is when Islam over-steps the traditional boundries of religion and slips into politics.
(Hirschkind n.d.) Basically political Islam is the use of a modern version of Islam by political
leader to achive their own goals in the political arena. In this context we see that Islam is a
tool to further selfish objectives.
In 1953, Shah’s restoration to power had garnered resentment in the masses as he had
surpressed the Islamic practices in Iran. (Bruno 2008) Iran, under the rule of Shah had
become a modern, moderately Islamic state. Shah introduced the White Revolution, through
which he pushed forward many economic, political and majorly social reforms. (Ansari 2001)
The idea behind the White Revolution was to liberate the society and to adopt Western values
and culture, pushing aside the Islamic norms. Any opposition on the public’s part was
brutally trampled by Shah’s secret police SAVAK. The oppression led to a simmering
resentment in the public until it became unbearable and the revolution was triggered.
In 1979, after the revolution, the Shah was ousted, and in came the popular leader Ayatollah
Khomeini. A note worthy thing here is that though the revolution is claimed to be ―Islamic‖ it
wasn’t exactly so, the revolution came in reaction to the years of opperssion that the Iranian
people had suffered at the hands of Shah and SAVAK. (Aslan 2012) In the after math of
revolution a void had been created and Khomeini, a theocratic leader saw the opportunity to
establish a more Islamic and less westernized, fundamentalist government. In the wake of
revolution, Khomeini returned from exile and formed the Council of the Islamic Revolution,
which took control of the country.
Both the Iranian leaders had in their own ways used Islam as a tool. But where Shah had used
a moderate version of Islam to remain in power, Khomeini used Islam to establish control in
time of anarchy and revive traditional practices.
Iran’s influence on the regional politics:
Iran has considerable influence in the regional politics as it is on of the largest oil producers,
and also because it is challenging the regional hegemons to their positions and is collecting
allies in Middle East.
Maria Salman and Uzair Zahid Siddiqui 2013

a) Afghanistan:
The U.S. presence in Afghanistan has become a major factor in Iranian behavior towards
Afghanistan. Iran’s relation with the Afghani government has always been that of a ―helpful
neighbor‖. In the beginging, despite the anti-American stance, Iran saw Afghanistan as
neutral meeting ground for Iran and U.S., but America rejected every overture of a friendly
relation. (Christensen 2011) So now Iran seems to be ―Pursuing Contradictory Objectives‖ in
terms of the fact that on one hand Iran supports the Afghan government, while other hand
iran in interest of its anti U.S stance Iran also provides a measure of support to Taliban,
which ironically champions an anti-shi’a ideology. (Laha and Nader 2011)
b) Iraq:
After Iraq’s attempt to seize control of Iran’s oil reseverse and the consequential war,
diplomatic relations between the two ceased. In post-Saddam era Iran has developed a new
strategy of reviving relations and supporting the new Iraqi government. Despite the bad blood
between the two countries over the 1980-88 war, in this new era the main ambition now is to
prevent the Sunni from regaining power in Iraq. Also, Iran is developing ties with shi’a
militants in Iraq to support them againt the American in an attempt to thwart them. Over this
America repeatedly accuses Iran of supporting terrorism in the region. (BAHGAT 2009)
c) Saudi Arabia:
Since the fall of Saddam, the Middle Eastern Political situation is drastically changing. Israel
and Saudia Arabia, the previous U.S.-backed hegemons, are no long the only key players in
the region. Iran is coming a front runner to challenge them to their leading positions. The
clashing ideologies about the regional politics, the race to rule the region and the shi’a sunni
conflict are the factors that have put a strain on the relation of the countries. But the most
important is their respective relation with the U.S. with Iran being anti-American and Saudis
being pro-Americans. And also their stances about the Isreal-Palestine conflict, where Iran is
firmly in Palestine’s camp and supports all actions against Isreal. Saudi Arabia on the other
hand can’t act as assertively because of iss U.S. alliance. This rather passive attitude towards
Isreal hans’t endeared Saudi arab to Iran. (Wehrey, et al. 2011)
US Affinity towards Iran’s regional rival, Israel
a) Pro-Jewish lobby
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US has long been a supporter of Israel. US support has come in every form: military,
political, economic. Since the World War II, Israel has received nearly $115 billion from the
US alone in form of bilateral assistance. The Congress has always rendered its support to
Israel, providing favors to Israel that other states do not have access to (Sharp, March 12,
2012 ). Although, other forms of assistances have been extended to Israel, military assistance
sits on the top shelf of the US-Israel relationship. With the access to the US’ military
technology, Israel has a dependable resource for the latest weaponry against all the threats,
especially Iran.
Both Iran and Israel have competed for influence in the region, though the aggressiveness
between the two seemed non-existent before 1979, even to the extent that Iran would
purchase hi-tech weapons from Israel, given that they had a common enemy in Egypt and
Iraq (Oliai, 2011). However, the cooperation saw its end in 1979 after the advent of
Khomeini and the theocracy.
Since then, Israel has had unrelenting support in this matter from the US,
b) A call by Iran’s President for Israel “to be wiped off the map”
The Iranian President Ahmadinejad has been unequivocal in his stance against Israel. He has
repeatedly called for the world to see that the Jews have unrightfully occupied Palestine and
this occupation needs to be eliminated. On October 25
, 2005 Ahmadinejad spoke at a
conference The World Without Zionism in which he called for the Jewish state Israel to be
completely wiped off the face of the earth (Times, 2005):
Our dear Imam (Ayatollah Khomeini) said that the occupying regime must be wiped off the
map and this was a very wise statement. We cannot compromise over the issue of Palestine.
Is it possible to create a new front in the heart of an old front. This would be a defeat and
whoever accepts the legitimacy of this regime has in fact, signed the defeat of the Islamic
world. Our dear Imam targeted the heart of the world oppressor in his struggle, meaning the
occupying regime. I have no doubt that the new wave that has started in Palestine, and we
witness it in the Islamic world too, will eliminate this disgraceful stain from the Islamic
With a resolute stance against Israel, Iran stands the opposite the US, a supporter of Israel. It
seems unlikely that either of the parties will change their position on the legitimacy of
Maria Salman and Uzair Zahid Siddiqui 2013

existence of the Jewish state on Muslim lands, hence, a constant bone of contention between
the two parties will subsist in the form of Israel.
Iran’s black gold trade
a) U.S. economic interest in the Iranian oil resources
Another reason of US’s efforts to maintain good relations with Iran were its interests in
Iranian oil fields. This was evident when Iranian oil fields were safeguarded by appointment
of favorable person by US into power in Iran, in order to prevent these from going into
Russian furnish, followed by allocation of millions of dollars of grants to keep the region
flourished and to keep the interests met. This also built a relationship of trust and harmony
between the two countries. (Lenczowski may 1972)
Creation of oil weapon was another reason of America’s interest in Iran’s oil reserves,
initially in creation of such technology which drew them closer and later by restriction of
such assets which distant them apart. One of the reasons why America closely monitored
Iranian oil reserves was to avoid a possible threat by disguising oil export decline as a
voluntary cut, causing an increase in oil weapon creation and also an increase in premium
attached to international oil prices by decrease in supply of oil in international market. (Stern
b) Sanction
Sanctions imposed against Iranian shipping companies and Iranian vessels by the United
States parted its shipping sector from contributing in national income. Moreover, the
embargoes on Iranian trade left Iran with a limited amount of trade mostly with the Asian
countries, it gave Iran to design good terms with neighboring countries but at the same time
weakened the relationship with America and the west. Also in 2005 restrictions were made
on Iranian nationals entry in United Sates. These along with several other sanctions imposed
on Iran by US restricted its growth and consequently distant apart the two countries. What
Washington called as ―neo-liberalization‖ of the sector had a discriminated meaning for every
part of the world which leads to distortion of the relationships between the two countries.
(Ilias, Iran's Economic Conditions: U.S. Policy Issues 2009) (Davis, et al. 2011)

Bane of U.S. existence, Iranian Nuclear program
Maria Salman and Uzair Zahid Siddiqui 2013

The relation between the two countries was smooth initially and US was taking interest in
Iran’s nuclear program, technology from France and other part of the world was provided by
US for the program, however due to revolution and fall of Shah, the power changed which
no more regarded the interests of US, people became anti-American and so were the polices.
This was the time when the two countries started to distant apart(Kibaroglu 2006) (J. D.
Davis 2005)

But then Iran signed the non-proliferation treaty with other nuclear possessing nations to
ensure that Iran is using the nuclear technology for peaceful purposes only and IAEA started
monitoring Iran’s nuclear facilities in 2003. This bridged the gap between the US and Iran as
US now felt secure. US policy towards Iran in this regard started becoming neutral. However,
the Natanz facility enrichment was a violation to NPT and called for an immediate action
from US, UN and IAEA. (Babaei 2008) Iran’s perspective of development of nuclear assets
was for energy development and other peaceful practices, however after this event US did not
trust Iran in this regard and an immediate shift of nuclear program to Russia was demanded.
Consequently, the relationships were being consistently damaged, and the policies were
designed in opposition. (Blechman and Moore 2012)
Analysis of the Iranian relation from the Realist persective
a) Peace is not a possibility in the anarchic international state system.
Realist framework says that states are rational actor which defend their own interest.
The nuclear issue in Iran was an act of self-interest of rational actor, which was manipulated
according to self esteem from time to time, initially in favor of Iran and against the opposing
colonial powers of United States and later against Iran and in favor of United states itself and
other United Nations members. As long as America had the interest for oil, its dollar value
being added, dollar in terms of oil being demanded and oil-based weapons made to break
Russia, America was totally in favor of how things went along with Iran. Later with the
evolution of Terrorism and Iran being declared as a threat against America due to revolution,
America’s interest has flipped its face and is now heading against those of Iran’s.
The pursuing of national interests in a realist framework also lead to uncertain policies and
decisions as the interests of selfish states are changing with the circumstances. This was
observed in the relationship between Iran and United States where there has always been an
uncertainty, uncertainty because of change of their self interest or uncertainty due to
Maria Salman and Uzair Zahid Siddiqui 2013

intervention or protection of other states, evident by the uncertainty in the United States
policy of granting loan to Iran only to keep Russia out of reach of Iran’s oil reserves and not
to let Iran to seek help from Britain, a colonial power of the time. (Jordet 2009)

b) Some practical cooperation can be attained but only for short spells of time.
One of the princilples of realism is that the no permenant cooperation can be achived, and all
countries are essentially selfish, but if the states have some common goal and can be brought
under one umberella on some issue then there is a possibility of peace. But it may be noted
that the peace is short lived, because it is motivated by self interests, rather then a desire for
Iran and U.S. must have cooperated on some level, because they share some material and
strategic interests in the Middle East. From 1953 to 1976, because of their common interest
the two states were able to live in harmony, as long as both had something to gain from it.
Since Shah was working for U.S. and looking after their geo-political concerns in the region
the Americans were happy, in return Shah had full backing from U.S. in lording over the
region. As long as Iran was under U.S. thumb, and Shah was putting U.S. interest before
Iran’s they had cooperation. But when in 1976 Shah put Iran’s interest in forefront and
refused America’s request to lower oil prices in the international market, the American
interest was no longer being catered to and so they colluded with Saudia Arabia to lower the
oil prices. The consequence of this was that the Iranian economy went into decline.
c) Rational actors or not?
The realist claims that all states are rational actors. If the state were rational actors, then they
would think objectively over then national interests and would not react rashly toward day to
day happenings. But can we claim that the state actors in our political system are rational?
That all personal judgement of the state leaders is put aside, and they logically think over all
matter before taking any decision.
In 1986, Robert McFarlane, former security adviser of President Reagan, took a shipment of
spare part to Iran as a token of reconciliation. He expected Iran to weild its influence over
Lebenon to free the U.S hostages held in Lebenon. Necaragua was funded the profits from
this transaction. The Iranian radicals sabotaged this secret arrangement, by leaking the story,
which resulted in Iran-Contra sacandal, with associated repercussion for Americans.10
Maria Salman and Uzair Zahid Siddiqui 2013

In 2008, Iran opened doors to negotiations, with the permeneant members of Security
Council, on various issues issues including nuclear program, peace in Mid East, international
terrorism. The Security Council members, led by U.S., preconditioned these talks with the
closure of Iran’s uranium enrichment program. Iran refused to even concsider the option.
Another stalemate was reached.
More examples of missed opportunities at peace can found in the Apendix B.
Analyzing the fluctuations in the relations, we see that though both parties desire to have a
better working relationship, their irrational behavior keep them from achieving effective
results. In 1986 America went against its own embargo by dealing with Iran, when according
to the realist they should have had no relations what so ever due to the conflicting agendas.
They would precisely be called rational while acting in this manner. The same can be said for
Iran who belive the nuclear program to be set in stone, not even considering the possibility of
any other way.
Then we have the Isreal’s claim to declare war against Iran, with U.S. backing. The actual
possibility of this war is very slim because the norms of international system would not allow
it to be executed.
From all this we see that though the realist clain to have states as rational actors in all
actuality that is not true. Looking at the history we see repeated irrational behavior which
shows great eveidence of personal biases coming into play. Considering this the possibility of
peace is very slim, between the two countries, as both are irrational and can’t be objective
enough to have civilized talks.
Iran the regional hegemon:
Iran has been a major player in the regional politics and is emerging as a threat tp the regional
super powers. Iran is using significant influence in the regions political and economic arena
and has a huge role in defing the future of the region. But with direct opposition from U.S.
would it be able to reach the level of a regional hegemon and sustain it? The answer is yes.
Even though Iran is economically weak in the recent time Iran has been gaining soft power in
the region and is now at a point where it can openly challage the previous leader, Isreal and
Saudia Arab to the position as hegemons. Iran is one of the largest oil suppliers in the
international market and has the power to influence the world oil market. Iran is also trying to
develop a nuclear power plant and maybe weapons too, also Iran’s ―defy America‖ stance
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and the Iranian anti-Isreal stance is for all to see as Iran make it know that the ―wipe Isreal
from face of the earth‖ this action gains Iran considerable respect from the Muslim world,
particularly the region. What remains to be seen is that will Iran compromise at any point or
would it stand stong against its opposers and also because it is challenging the regional
hegemons to their positions and is collecting allies in Middle East.

d) A security dilemma exists between the U.S. and Iran.

As the power of Iran is growing on an increasing pace in terms of its nuclear enrichment
program over the last decade, United States is viewing it as a possible threat. One of the
reasons being the arms race and increase in Iranian war heads which would later help Iran to
gain control over other nations as the realist framework describes power and territory as the
two golden tools for the existence of states. Another is the increase in terrorism, US accusing
Iran of being a feeder of terrorism with unstable nuclear reactors that possess a possible threat
to the world security.
United States being endlessly threatened from Iran’s atomic project is endorsing all efforts in
isolating Iran in the region. As the world increases the technology of nuclear weapons, Iran
tries to match their technology or to beat them off, which in turn stimulates a non ending race
of getting ahead in nuclear war heads. As the other state or non-state actor feels insecure it
increases its power by either siding with other states as America is doing in terms of United
Nations and NATO or through increasing its own power by creation of more war head via
usage of advance technology.
For the security dilemma to end and get ahead in this arms race, America took the help of
United Nations to put economic and political sanctions on Iran and even tried to shift the
Iranian nuclear reactors to Russia.
Zero-sum conception:
The theory states that when one states win the other automatically loses, the is no middle
ground, nor any win win situation. Does it hold true for the Iran U.S. relation? Looking at the
shared of the history of the region we are likely to belive that that it does. Both countries are
serving their own self interest, with out a regard to the other and in some case going out of
their way to maximum damage to eacho other as is the case of U.S. sanction.
Maria Salman and Uzair Zahid Siddiqui 2013

Under the realist framework the hostility between the two adversaries continues to hold
Under the realist framework, the hostility between the two adversaries continues to hold. As
the theory suggests, states are hegemonic, They are the supreme authority, no other state is
thought to be wiser than any other state, There is no non-state actor to hold talks between the
two states. Although non-state actors like United nations and European Unioin do exist in
today’s world but their say is limited to what United States say as U.S is dominant among all
the state and non-state actors as it has the hegemonic power, it acts like a rational actor at
such forums and does what is best in its own interest or the interest of its allies against Iran.
There is no other state as strong as U.S that is why the norms are created by United States
depending upon its own interests, geopolitical, socio-political and global welfare to benefit
itself in the long run and to safe guard its own territory, population, sovereignty and
United States is the hegemony in the unipolar world and its interest conflicts with those of
Iran, it is difficult for the two states to come at peace with each other, and hence such unrest
seems to continue in the future.

Maria Salman and Uzair Zahid Siddiqui 2013

Appendix A
Timeline - Iran Us relations:
Oil nationalization crisis
Before the nationalization, the Iranian oil industry was controlled by Anglo-Iranian Oil
Company (AIOC). In 1951 Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq, with overwhelming
support of the parliament, nationalized the oil indusrty.
The coup d'état
On 15 August 1953, US and British sponsored coup ousted Mosaddeq legitimate government,
reinstating Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, who had been forced into exile.
Sāzemān-e Ettelā'āt va Amniyat-e Keshvar
Sāzemān-e Ettelā'āt va Amniyat-e Keshvar (SAVAK), a CIA sponsored and trained
intelligence agency, operated form 1957 to 1979. Its was Shah secret police and was
recognized as ―most hated and most feared‖ institute.
Effect of oil related events on Iran.
The oil prices in the internation market had been high since 1973 oil crisis.The United States
and Saudi Arabia lowered the oil prices, but Shah Iran refused to do the same, stating it to be
against Iranian interest. Consequentially, a financial crisis was triggered in Iran that
weakened Shah’s hold on the power.
Iranian Revolution.
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The Iranian public, dissatisfied with their situation, took to streets against the unpopular
Shah’s regime. The U.S. stooge, Shah, was ousted from his office, forced to leave the
Ayatollah Khomeini returns.
Ayatollah Khomeini was exiled to Iraq in 1964. The anti-American leader made a triumphant
return, in 1979, after 14 years of exile.
Iran hostage crisis.
Against the wishes of Iranian government, U.S. opened it doors to Shah to recive cancer
treatment. In retailation, the Iranian embassy in Tehran was stormed by Iranian students,
taking 52 American diplomats as hostage. The U.S. cut all diplomatic ties with Iran.
Failed rescue attempt.
After the failed attempt at negociations, U.S. president, in a last ditch effort to recover the
hostages, authorised a military rescue mission which was doomed to failure.
Persian Gulf War.
Iraq conducted a U.S. backed invasion of Iran. Iran was basically diplomatically isolated in
the war. The war waged on for 8 years. U.S. backed Iran and launched its own military
operations, like Operation Praying Mantis, to undermine Iran.
Hostages released.
The 52 U.S. embassy hostages were released minutes after the U.S. president Jimmy Carter
left the office and Ronald Reagan was sworn in. They had been hald as hostage for 444 days.
Attacks on U.S. Embassy
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Two attacks were launched on the U.S. embassy in Beirut, Lebennon. Hezbullah, a political
party and a militant group, was suspected to be behind the attackes. U.S had grounds to claim
that Hezbullah was receiving its financial, military and poitical backing from Iran and Syria.
The Iran-Contra affair.
The public learned of the American attempt at under the table dealings with Iran. U.S. were
trying to sell weapons to Iran who was short of weapons supply at the time. The funds of the
deal were to fuel U.S. backed contra (anti-communist) fight in Nicaragua.
Iranian airflight 655 shot down.
Iranian airbus airflight 655 was shot down over the Persian Gulf by American Navy cruiser
USS Vincennes. 290 people were killed.
Iraq- Iran war ends.
UN negotiated a ceasefire between the two gulf countries, after numerious failed attempts
United Nations Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 582, which was accepted
by both parties.
New Supreme Leader
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini died on 3 of June. Khamenei succeeds Khomeini as
supreme leader the following day.
Gulf War
Iran chose to remail neutral in the U.S. intervention in Kuwait, and and war againt Iraq.
Dual Containment policy
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In 1993, Dual Containment policy was practiced by America to isolate Iran and Iraq in order
to pursue US interests in the region.(20045919)

Imposed Embargo on Iranian Trade
In 1995, Bill Clinton imposed complete embargo on the trade with Iran, the following year
US advised other western countries to stop investing in Iranian Nuclear energy. European
Union denounced it invalid.

Axis of Evil
G.W. Bush described Iran, Iraq and North Korea as ―axis of evil‖ and called the proliferation
of long-range missiles enriched as an act of terrorism and a threat to US.(axis of evil

Additional protocol signed
Additional protocol was signed between Iran and IAEA, Iran’s atomic functioning was now
Ahmadinejad became president
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was religious and conservative as said by many, became the
president of Iran.
Iran restricted from meeting UN
US State department refused the visa of Iranian parliamentary speaker, Mousa Qorbani, who
had to participate in a meeting conducted by UN.

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Natanz nuclear enrichment
Natanz nuclear facility was made operational for nuclear weapon creation, a violation of non-
proliferation treaty.

UN supports US interst
The same year, UN declared Iran as the ―greatest single threat‖ which US faced, as Iran
continued its uranium enrichment program to its full potential. (debating iran nuclear prog.)

Multiple sanctions imposed
In 2005 US imposed Multiple sanctions on Iran through United Nations, restricting member
states to transfer technology and much more.(Charge-kept)

Official detained, second aircraft-carrier battle
US detained several Iranian officials in Iraq and stimulated second aircraft-carrier battle into
the Persian gulf.(40277097)

Holocast Conference
Iranian President gives a controversial interview, denying the presence of Holocaust.

Naval stand-off
In Jan 2008, naval stand-off’s between Iranian and American navy took place.

Obama Elected
Obama was elected as the new president of United States, a new approach to Iranian Nuclear

Obama offers a solution
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Obama offered neutralizeation of Iranian atomic program by transferring the setup in safer
hands, Russia. Deal not welcomed by Iranian President, Ahmadinejad.(BF 2010)

US Strengthens its stance
US declared Iran as the most active state sponsor of terrorism as Iran enriched its nuclear
program.(30 years)
Iran clears its stance
2010, Iran admits to building a uranium enrichment plant near Qom, but insists it is for
peaceful purposes.

Maria Salman and Uzair Zahid Siddiqui 2013

All the events and corrensponding dates have been taken from the following sources:
"Timeline: US-Iran ties" BBC News. Last modified January 16, 2009.
"Chronology - U.s. Iran Relations, 1906-2002 " Frontline. (accessed ).
Sam Sasan Shoamanesh . "History Brief: Timeline Of Us‐Iran Relations Until The Obama
Administration." MIT International Review. 2009.
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Maria Salman and Uzair Zahid Siddiqui 2013

Appendix B

U.S. - Iran Relations: Catalog of Missed Opportunities
U.S.-Iran Relations after the Revolution:
A Catalog of Missed Opportunities
Paper Prepared for the American Foreign Policy Project
Barbara Slavin
June 12, 2008
The most propitious time for reconciliation in the past 30 years was after 9-11 when Iran
telegraphed in many ways its desire to improve relations and contributed to the U.S. victory
in Afghanistan in both political and military terms . . . We could have made an ally of Iran
instead of intensifying its enmity.
The history of U.S.-Iran relations over the past three decades is a sad tale of mutual
grievances and invective and of repeated missed opportunities – sometimes on the Iranian
side, more often lately on ours – to reconcile. What engagement has occurred has been
tactical, not strategic, plagued by concerns over exposure and how domestic political
adversaries would react if they knew talks were taking place.
Frequently, the two sides have been out of sync. When one side appeared ready for
authoritative dialogue, the other was not. On the U.S. side, particularly under the Bush
administration, there has been a pattern of offering to little, too late.
The most propitious time for reconciliation in the past 30 years was after 9-11 when Iran
telegraphed in many ways its desire to improve relations and contributed to the U.S. victory
in Afghanistan in both political and military terms. President Bush’s biggest strategic mistake
after 9-11 – and he made many -- was to think he could go after multiple enemies instead of
focusing on al-Qaeda. We could have made an ally of Iran instead of intensifying its enmity.
Obviously, things have gotten more complicated since Khatami left office. But engagement is
possible even with Ahmadinejad in power.
Maria Salman and Uzair Zahid Siddiqui 2013

Missed Opportunities

May 1986
A delegation led by President Reagan's former national security adviser, Robert McFarlane,
travels to Tehran to deliver spare parts for U.S. anti-aircraft missiles. McFarlane also carries a
Bible and a chocolate cake in the shape of a key from a kosher bakery in Tel Aviv. Reagan
hopes the scheme will free U.S. hostages in Lebanon and establish ties with Iranian
―moderates.‖ Profits from the sale of the arms are used to fund anti-communist rebels in
Nicaragua, in violation of a congressional ban. Iranian radicals leak the story to a Lebanese
newspaper. The ensuing Iran-Contra scandal shakes the Reagan administration and leads to
the execution of the son-in-law of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s designated successor,
Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri. The plan, wrote historian James Bill, "was poorly, clumsily
and unprofessionally conceived. It involved the wrong people . . . advised by the wrong
'experts' . . . supported by the wrong allies."1
President George H.W. Bush declares in his Inaugural address that "goodwill begets
goodwill," strongly implying that the United States will resume relations with Iran if it
engineers the release of the last U.S. hostages in Lebanon. Iran ransoms the hostages and in
1990, agrees to meet with the United States in Switzerland. At the last moment, the Iranians
pull out. Brent Scowcroft, then White House national security adviser, said later, "My
judgment at the time was that the situation in Iran was delicate enough that nobody was
prepared to stick his neck out and actually have a conversation with the Great Satan."2
The government of Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani offers a billion dollar
contract to the Conoco oil company to develop two offshore oil fields in what is seen as an
olive branch to the new Clinton administration. President Clinton responds by slapping a total
embargo on U.S. involvement in Iran's petroleum sector and a year later signs into law the
Iran-Libya Sanctions Act, threatening punishment against foreign companies investing in
Iranian or Libyan oil or gas production.
Maria Salman and Uzair Zahid Siddiqui 2013

Iran's new president, Mohammad Khatami, calls for a "dialogue of civilizations" with the
United States to "break down the bulky wall of mistrust" between the two countries.3 The
Clinton administration responds by promoting exchanges of athletes and academics and sends
a letter to Khatami via the Saudis offering to begin an authoritative dialogue. The Iranians do
not reply. In 1999, the administration eases sanctions on the sale to Iran of U.S. food and
medicine and then secretary of State Madeleine Albright outlines a "road map" for better
relations. A year later, Albright gives a major speech in which she apologizes for the 1953
CIA coup that re-installed the Shah and for U.S. support for Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war.
However, she distinguishes in her remarks between the "elected" Khatami and the
"unelected" supreme leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The Iranians reject the
November 2001
The Iranians inform a U.S. diplomat that Khatami, planning a visit to the United Nations for a
delayed meeting of the General Assembly after the 9-11 attacks, would like to bring a large
delegation with him, including experts on al-Qaeda. He also asks to visit Ground Zero to pay
his respects to the victims. Neither offer is taken up by the Bush administration.5
January 2002
James Dobbins, U.S. envoy to Afghan talks, and then Treasury secretary Paul O'Neill are
approached by Iranian diplomats at an Afghan donor conference in Tokyo and told that Iran
would like to open a broad dialogue with the United States. Both men relay the message to
Washington to no apparent effect. A week later, President Bush includes Iran on an "axis of
Evil" with Iraq and North Korea.6
March 2002
On the fringes of a multilateral meeting on Afghanistan in Geneva, Dobbins is introduced to
an Iranian general who had been in charge of Iran’s military aid to the Northern Alliance, an
anti-Taliban Afghan militia. The general tells Dobbins that Iran is willing to contribute to a
U.S.-led effort to build a new Afghan army and is prepared to train up to 20,000 troops.
Dobbins mentions the offer to then secretary of state Colin Powell, then national security
adviser Condoleezza Rice and defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld. "Insofar as I am aware,
Maria Salman and Uzair Zahid Siddiqui 2013

the issue was never again discussed and the Iranians never received a response," Dobbins
November 2001-May 2003
U.S. and Iranian diplomats meet secretly a dozen times in Europe in talks led by Ryan
Crocker and Zalmay Khalilzad, then senior Bush administration officials. The talks initially
focus on Afghanistan but later deal with al-Qaeda fugitives, Iranian opposition groups and
U.S. preparations for the Iraq war. The talks end after they are publicized and bombings take
place in Saudi Arabia that the Bush administration asserts are linked to al-Qaeda detainees in
Iran. Iran denies any role.
May 2003
The Swiss transmit an Iranian agenda for talks including all issues of U.S. concern, among
them: Iran's nuclear program, support for militant anti-Israel groups and rejection of a two-
state solution to the Palestinian question. Powell and White House political aide Karl Rove
see the document, authored by Iran's ambassador to France, Sadegh Kharrazi, with help from
Swiss ambassador to Iran Tim Guldimann and Mohammad Javad Zarif, an Iranian deputy
foreign minister. The Bush administration, feeling triumphant after the toppling of the Iraqi
regime, does not reply.8
February-March 2006
Iranian national security adviser Ali Larijani authorizes a deputy, Mohammad Javad Jaffari,
to begin backchannel talks with U.S. national security adviser Stephen Hadley. When the
overture is unsuccessful, Larijani and Khamenei endorse a previous U.S. proposal for talks
just on Iraq. The Bush administration rejects such talks until more than a year later.9
May 2006
Rice offers to join broad multinational negotiations with Iran but only if Iran first suspends its
uranium enrichment program. Iran weighs the offer for three months and then rejects it.
May 2008
Iran offers to begin "constructive negotiations" with the United States, the other four
permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany on a range of issues,
including the nuclear program, terrorism and Middle East peace but continues to refuse to
Maria Salman and Uzair Zahid Siddiqui 2013

suspend uranium enrichment.10 The Bush administration and the European powers reply by
reiterating the standard demand that Iran must suspend enrichment before serious
negotiations can commence.11
1. James A. Bill, The Eagle and the Lion: The Tragedy of American-Iranian Relations (New
Haven: Yale University Press, 1988) pps. 312-313. [back]
2. Barbara Slavin, Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the U.S. and the Twisted Path to
Confrontation (New York: St. Martin's Press, 2007) p. 179. [back]
3. Christiane Amanpour, CNN interview with Khatami, Jan. 7, 1998. [back]
4. Slavin, pps. 175-177. [back]
5. Slavin, p. 194. [back]
6. James Dobbins, After the Taliban: Nation Building in Afghanistan (Dulles, Virginia:
Potomac Books, 2008) p. 103. [back]
7. Dobbins testimony before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform,
Subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs, November 7, 2007. [back]
8. Trita Parsi, Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran and the U.S. New
Haven, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007) p. 247. [back]
9. Slavin, p. 218. [back]
10. [back]
11. . [back]

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